WASHINGTON – With the backing of the Obama administration, the Akaka Bill has received a big boost of support that may provide enough weight to push the proposed legislation through Congress this year.
Hawaii’s congressional delegates have tried to pass some version of the Akaka Bill for almost 10 years. The bill is named after its originator, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Supporters of the bill – the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act – welcomed the endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing Aug. 6.
“The Department of Justice strongly supports the core policy goals of this bill and I am very pleased to testify on this historic legislation today,” said Deputy Associate Attorney General Sam Hirsch. “Despite numerous obstacles, Native Hawaiians have a sustained history of acting collectively and creating institutions to preserve Native Hawaiian forms of social organization, religious practice, family and cultural identity and other distinctive cultural practices.”
The latest version of the Akaka Bill would authorize a process for establishing a Native Hawaiian governing entity and would grant the equivalent of federal recognition to Native Hawaiians, allowing them to be treated on par with American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, it would not allow gaming, create reservation trust lands, give any land back to Native Hawaiians without legislative approval, or change any existing laws.
The governing entity would negotiate with the United States and the State of Hawaii over the transfer of lands, civil and criminal issues, and grievances by the Native Hawaiian community.
Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., noted that Congress has passed more than 150 statutes dealing with Native Hawaiians. He said the Akaka Bill “is an important step for our country. It’s an attempt to redress the wrongs our government has committed against the Native Hawaiian people.”
Dorgan reminded the hearing that Congress previously has recognized Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of Hawaii, notably in the Apology Resolution signed into law in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
The apology acknowledged the illegality of the U.S. government’s military-backed regime change of “the sovereign Hawaii nation” in 1893 and its support for the illegally created “provisional government” in violation of treaties and international law. The insurgents were wealthy American and European financiers and colonists who owned sugar plantations.
The key statement in the apology reiterates Hawaii’s continuing independence: ‘‘The indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States, either through their monarchy or through a plebiscite or referendum.”
The Bush administration opposed the act, claiming it would divide people on the basis of race. Bush claimed the act could lead to secession and threatened to veto the bill if it passed.
“Does the legislation permit secession?” Akaka asked.
“Senator Akaka, absolutely not,” Hirsh said.
Also testifying were Haunani Apoliona, Office of Hawaiian Affairs chair; Micah Kane, Hawaiian Homes Commission chair; Robin Puanani Danner, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement president; and constitutional attorneys Stuart M. Benjamin; Douglas B. Maggs, law professor and associate dean for research at Duke Law School; and Christopher Bartolomucci, a partner at the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson.
Benjamin and Bartolomucci had differing views on the constitutionality of the bill. Benjamin argued that Native Hawaiians are too broad and diverse to meet a constitutional definition of a tribe.
“The legislation would probably need to create several tribes” or define Native Hawaiians as of 1810 or exclude the estimated 40 percent living away from the islands.
Bartolomucci said none of the scores of laws dealing with American Indians, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians have ever been struck down as racially discriminatory.
“Congress’ broad power to deal with Indian tribes allows congress to recognize Native Hawaiians as having the same sovereign status as other Native Americans,” Bartolomucci said.
While all those testifying were generally in favor of the Akaka Bill, no representative of Hawaii’s sovereignty movement was invited to speak. The sovereignty movement seeks full independence from the United States based on decolonization and de-occupation under international law.
Representatives of the movement have been excluded from the discourse in Congress and in the recent Supreme Court case, which ruled earlier this year that Congress’ apology for overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 bears no moral, political or legal weight in stopping the State of Hawaii from selling 1.2 million acres of land seized during the illegal regime change before land claims by Native Hawaiians are resolved.
David M. K. Inciong, II of Pearl City, a Native Hawaiian, said the hearing was “farcical.”
“Here we are, foreign nationals made stateless in our own country and the U.S. wants to forcibly incorporate us into their country as indigenous Native Americans; yet again through their domestic laws to be under the plenary authority of U.S. Congress.
“Instead of living a lie by creating more lies, the U.S. needs to take stock of its situation, de-occupy Hawai’i, and return our already recognized sovereign nation-state back to us who love our country as much as the U.S. Americans love theirs. We are peers to the U.S. as nation-to-nation. Why would we submit to being a lesser status of a nation within a nation which is translated into a belligerent occupation which we already live under?”
Kehaulani Kauanui, a Native Hawaiian and associate professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University, said the discussion of constitutionality was inadequate.
“What was missing, of course, is the fact that under the U.S. Constitution, the Hawaiian Kingdom was regarded as a foreign nation, an independent sovereign state. Foreign nations do not have any relationship to the U.S. Department of the Interior precisely because that department is about areas considered by the U.S. government as internal to the U.S.A, (Indian tribes, U.S. Island Territories and National Parks). Foreign nations relate to the U.S. Department of State.
“… This legislation has caused a very deep divide throughout our communities – both those in our island homeland and those residing on others Native nations’ lands in North America.”